The Overwrought Opposition to Brian Deese

Biden’s choice to direct the National Economic Council is getting pushback from progressive groups, but the criticism seems unwarranted.

In a development as predictable as the sunrise, The Hill reports that congressional Republicans will greet President Biden by re-embracing their inner deficit hawks and focusing “on curbing the nation’s debt and reforming entitlement programs starting in 2021.” It’s a pattern established with Ronald Reagan—Republican administrations run massive deficits. Then Republicans in Congress demand incoming Democratic administrations make unpopular cuts to solve the fiscal crises they’ve created.

Progressives don’t want to watch another episode, which is why they’re on the lookout for any Biden appointments who may have advocated entitlement reform and other kinds of deficit hawkery in prior iterations of this drama.

Near the top of their list is Brian Deese, reportedly Biden’s selection for director of the National Economic Council, a 42-year-old with a resume that would make any parent proud.

He graduated from Middlebury College and Yale Law School. He started as a Hillary Clinton supporter in the 2008 campaign cycle and when Barack Obama won the nomination, Deese moved over to his campaign.  He was so impressive that he was given responsibility for working on the auto bailout. In a profile for the New York Times, Deese revealed that “There was a time between Nov. 4 [2008] and mid-February [2009] when I was the only full-time member of the auto task force.” In that role, he successfully negotiated the merger of Fiat and Chrysler.

From there, he just kept moving up. He was appointed to the National Economic Council and promoted to deputy director working under Gene Sperling.  He took the deputy director role at the Office of Management and Budget and even served briefly there as the interim director. Obama made him Senior Advisor to the President for climate and energy issues, and he was instrumental in negotiating the Paris Climate Agreement.  In February 2016, after the death of Antonin Scalia, Deese was put in charge of ushering his replacement through the Senate confirmation process which proved to be a fruitless task since Mitch McConnell blocked the ascension of Merrick Garland.

There’s something about Deese that inspires confidence which is why Obama gave him such disparate and vital roles at such a young age, including on issues like the economy and climate for which he had no formal training.

Why, then, is he on a hit list, as David Dayen of American Prospect describes it, of people progressives do not want to see serving on Biden’s economic team?

It’s mainly because he was hired by the gigantic investment firm Blackrock to serve as their Global Head of Sustainable Investing, a job “focused on identifying drivers of long-term return associated with environmental, social and governance issues.”

In that position, he’s been under pressure to divest from industries that contribute to climate change. And, while he’s been responsive to these concerns, ruling out investments in mining companies that generate 25% or more of their revenues from coal, Blackrock remains heavily invested in fossil fuels.

It’s easy to identify areas where his record is being distorted. He’s been criticized for defending Hillary Clinton’s proposal in 2007 to push Congress to adopt the Pay-As-You-Go rule. At the time, he was a 29-year-old advisor who was expected to support the candidate’s position.

Beyond that, the PAYGO rule was adopted by Nancy Pelosi in 2019 after she began her second stint as Speaker of the House. It forces Congress to identify cuts to match any new spending. However inadvisable it may be, it’s currently a mainstream Democratic position that any increase in appropriations needs to be offset to make them deficit-neutral.

Deese has at times sounded like a deficit hawk. Still, any veteran of the Obama economic team who lived through the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 is probably guilty of advocating for some kind of austerity to meet the Republicans’ halfway in their reckless push to force spending cuts.

Likewise, it seems unfair to blame Deese for supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, a major priority for the Obama administration which Biden and Hillary favored until they didn’t. In retrospect, progressive complaints about the agreement  seem overblown. With China just completing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 nations, it’s clear that America lost its chance to be the economic leader in the Pacific region and is still losing jobs. This is precisely the result the TPP was intended to avoid.

The directorship of the National Economic Council is an important position, previously held by heavyweights like Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, but it’s still just an advisory, broker position. It’s understandable that progressives, anticipating another battle against austerity, would prefer to see a like-minded individual in the role, but the opposition to Deese is overwrought. You’ve got liberals at the Council of Economic Advisors. Janet Yellen will not be an austerity Treasury Secretary. She favored the elaborate expansion of Fed power when Ben Bernanke was chair. One thing everyone can agree on is that Deese is not an idiot and only an idiot would try to impose an austerity agenda on a president and administration that doesn’t want one. Like Clinton and Obama before him, Biden trusts him to provide solid advice, and I think there are more productive areas for progressive pushback.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com